Pakistan's plans for a positive start to 2010 were dealt a withering blow with the news Mohammad Aamer, by far his team's best bowler in Melbourne, has been ruled out of the Sydney Test with a groin injury. Following a disastrous 2009 campaign, during which they were cast as cricketing nomads after being stripped of host venue status, Pakistan's hopes for a resurgent year have encountered trouble at the first hurdle with the loss of their most penetrative bowler.
The SCG was the site of Pakistan's last victory over Australia 15 years ago, and the expected reintroductions of Danish Kaneria and Umar Gul into the attack should provide them with added pep. But the likelihood of three bowling changes from the Boxing Day Test will do little for team stability, although that is hardly a new concept to a Pakistani team well accustomed to tumult.
Australia, meanwhile, produced one of their finest all-round displays in the post-Warne/McGrath era in Melbourne and will be looking for a repeat performance. The evolution of Shane Watson and Simon Katich as a potent opening combination, the maturation of Mitchell Johnson and Doug Bollinger in their respective old- and new-ball roles and the rise of Nathan Hauritz auger well for a new decade and the varied
challenges it will bring.
The hosts' primary concern surrounds the fitness of Katich, who is nursing an elbow injury. Phillip Hughes was on Saturday called into the squad as cover, however Katich's notoriously high pain threshold has him favoured to resume his place alongside Watson at the top of the order.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
Australia - WWDWL Pakistan - LDWLD
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Mitchell Johnson found his groove as a first-change specialist towards the end of a tumultuous 2009 campaign. His pace, bounce and reverse swing with the old ball at the MCG proved harassing for Pakistan's batsmen, and served as the perfect foil for fast bowling counterparts Bollinger and Peter Siddle. The recognition may have gone the way of Hauritz following his maiden five-wicket haul, but Johnson's match figures of 6 for 82 from 40 overs were the most prolific and economical of the Australian attack.
Danish Kaneria proved his workman-like qualities with his first visit to the SCG, claiming 7 for 188 from 49.3 challenging overs in the first innings against a rampant Australian batting line-up. Now recovered from the finger injury that ruled him out of the Melbourne Test, Kaneria is set to join forces with Ajmal in a twin-spin attack on Australia's most famous
turning surface. The younger contingent of Australia's modern day batting line-up have had little exposure to quality legspin, possibly providing Kaneria with an early advantage.
Ricky Ponting was surprised by Kaneria's record when he checked it out last week. "He's a very good bowler but I saw his record come up against some of the great spinners of the last 10 years and it stacks up very well against the best of them," he said. "His record is actually better than Abdul Qadir and everyone knows how highly regarded he was. We have played him here before and he has bowled well."
Katich's elbow problem was deemed serious enough for Hughes to be hauled in from state duty, with a decision to be made shortly before the coin toss. Ponting (elbow) and Hauritz (groin) are carrying niggles, however the fact selectors opted against naming shadow players indicates those two will play. Marcus North appears the only member of the starting XI under pressure with three single-figure dismissals this summer to balance out two half-centuries. The final two Tests against Pakistan will provide a strong
indicator as to whether he will be retained for this year's Ashes series.
Australia: (probable) 1 Shane Watson, 2 Simon Katich, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Michael Hussey, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Marcus North, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Nathan Hauritz, 10 Peter Siddle, 11 Doug Bollinger.
The loss of Aamer just days after he became the youngest fast bowler in Test history to claim a five-wicket haul has forced the selectors into yet another change to the bowling line-up. Gul had already been expected to replace the out-of-sorts Abdur Rauf, and a fit-again Kaneria tipped to replace Saeed Ajmal. It now appears Mohammad Sami will slot in for Aamer, potentially leaving Mohammad Asif as the only surviving member of the Pakistan bowling attack from last week's Boxing Day Test.
Pakistan: (probable) 1 Salman Butt, 2 Imran Farhat, 3 Faisal Iqbal, 4 Mohammad Yousuf (capt), 5 Misbah-ul-Haq, 6 Umar Akmal, 7 Kamran Akmal (wk), 8 Mohammad Sami, 9 Umar Gul, 10 Mohammad Asif, 11 Danish Kaneria
Pitch and conditions
The SCG pitch has worn many faces this year - from the slow, low track of the NSW-Tasmania Sheffield Shield game to the hard, seaming deck of the NSW-Victoria one-dayer. Tom Parker, the SCG curator, is hoping for something in between, but believes recent rain in Sydney will provide the fast bowlers with assistance. Indeed, the pitch had a distinct green tinge two days
before the coin toss, save for a bare patch two-thirds of the way down the strip. Just whether that will prove helpful for the spinners remains to be seen. Further rain on Saturday added to the groundstaff's worries.
Stats and trivia
Australia's 170-run victory at the MCG was their tenth consecutive Test win against Pakistan. Pakistan's last success over Australia in the Test arena came at the SCG in 1995, albeit in the final match of a series the hosts had already won.
Pakistan closed out a difficult 2009 campaign with a Test record of one win, four losses and four draws. Australia's record for the corresponding period was seven wins, three losses and three draws; a marked improvement on their 5-5-4 record from the previous year.
Katich and Watson have amassed 856 runs for the first wicket in just seven Tests as Australia's opening combination, including three century and as many half-century stands. Their partnership average of 71.33 trails only Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe among opening partnerships with ten or more innings together.
"We know what to expect from them, we know they have some very talented players. Last week we had their measure, up to us to make sure we start well again." Ricky Ponting on his opponents.
"We're feeling good. There is no disappointment at all. I told the team, 'OK we lost but it doesn't matter. Don't let it get you down, learn from the mistakes you made'. There is still a lot of cricket to look forward to."
Mohammad Yousuf adopts a 'glass half full' approach.